By Jessie Sage
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
Last week in my Peepshow Column, I spoke with Sonora Grace, a New Orleans-based sex worker, about her experience entering into a new romantic relationship as a sex worker. I also talked about my own experience as a married sex worker.
The conversation with Sonora that led to that piece (as well as this one) came out of her interest in finding resources and advice for her new partner, who had never been in a relationship with a sex worker before and wasn’t sure what to expect.
Together, Sonora and I decided that while we could talk to sex workers about what makes romantic relationships work for them, what would be more helpful to her partner–as well as other sex workers’ partners–is hearing the perspective of the partners themselves. With this in mind, we collectively interviewed 5 partners of sex workers who are all in long-term, successful relationships.
Being new to the world of sex work
Like Sonora’s partner, several of the people we interviewed had never been in a relationship with a sex worker prior to their current relationship and had some initial questions and reservations. Nick, for example, started dating his partner, a full-service sex worker, 3 years ago. While her career is now just a normal part of their lives, he does remember his initial apprehension. “I had not known people in sex work before,” he reflects. “At first I thought it might be a problem in terms of jealousy.”
Pan, who started dating their current partner–a porn performer and producer–a year and a half ago, says that they considered whether they were equipped for a relationship with a porn star prior to meeting them. “I knew the tenor of their work just from following them on Twitter and seeing their clips go by, I knew what kind of scenes they were shooting.” Given this knowledge, Pan did some introspection before even beginning the relationship. They say, “I asked myself if this is something that is going to be okay with me and I knew the answer had to be yes.”
Similarly, when Sinc’s wife, who was his girlfriend at the time, came to him and told him that she was interested in cam modeling. He recalls having to think about it, “I analyzed the situation in my mind. I have always been sex work-positive and sex-positive. I was open to the sex industry as a whole.” Nevertheless, “I had my reservations, but I dealt with them.”
Part of the reservations of most of the people we talked to were tied to notions of monogamy, even if they didn’t consider themselves strictly monogamous. Partnering with a sex worker, after all, means being in a relationship with someone whose job it is to be intimate with other people (in whatever form that takes). They were concerned, in other words, about jealousy.
Sinc says that at the beginning he was more jealous than he is now. “It is a matter of building trust,” he comments. For him, the jealousy wasn’t so much a fear of losing his wife to a customer, but rather, a fear of missing out. “Every once in a while when she did girl/girl cam shows or girl/girl shoots, I wanted to be involved, too,” he said. “I wanted to be involved, but it wasn’t about me.”
For Pan, their jealousy only flared up when their partner shot a scene with one of the most famous porn stars in the world. “I feel like my fears were more about the scope of [the scene] and its reach,” they comment. “Is this going to change our lives? Is this going to go from anonymity to something different?”
Nick says that the fear of jealousy put more strain on their relationship at the beginning, but over time he recognized that his relationship with his partner is very different than the ones that she has with her clients. He jokes that it was reassuring to know that many of her clients mostly annoyed her. He says, “That doesn’t inspire jealousy.”
For Sinc, it wasn’t so much that his wife was annoyed by her viewers and customers, but rather that she was good at communicating and reassuring him when he was feeling overwhelmed by her career. “Assertion of love is what got me through it,” he says. “I needed a, ‘this is a job, this is something that I am doing,’” followed with a reminder of her commitment to him.
Dealing with sex work stigma
Another stressor for most of the people who we interviewed were taking on the anti-sex work stigma of friends and family, and figuring out how and when to talk about their partners’ careers.
Sinc’s wife is out to their friends and his parents, but not to her parents. Thankfully, his parents understand this and respect her privacy. He says, “We have her mom over for dinners and Thanksgiving. My parents know her cover-up story.”
While Nick’s girlfriend is also out to a lot of people, she is not out to either of their parents. “It’s not a big issue on a daily basis,” he says, “but it can be a bit stressful. There are still a few people who don’t know and it’s a lot of stress maintaining a lie.”
John has known his girlfriend–a former stripper and current dominatrix and sugarbaby– most of his life, but they have only been dating the last two years. While he doesn’t hold a sex work stigma, he is aware others do. “It has never occurred to me that [sex work] was strange,” he says. “I do know to be careful around relatives and strangers about it but other than that, it was never something I thought twice about.”
And James, who has been in a 3-year relationship with a part-time dominatrix, phone sex operator, and content creator, says he at times catches himself worrying about what others will think. “Sometimes the insecure part of me thinks of some imaginary other judging me,” he says. But he adds, “I kind of wish people would see just how exciting it is to have a partner who is just happy with themselves and finding creative fulfillment in a really unique way.”
Nick, despite being careful around both of their parents, has come to a place where he is less and less worried about perception. He comments, “If someone does have an issue with this, then they are probably a dick, so whatever.”
All of the partners that we interviewed talked about being partnered with a sex worker in a positive light. Pan says, “I like the community of it.” Sinc agrees, saying, “I love seeing how the girls interact with each other, it’s a nice little community. There are a lot of girls we have met who are family to us now.” Nick has had a similar experience. He reflects, “I have met a lot of other sex workers through my partner, and the community is cool.”
Pan has also experienced the excitement of seeing their partner work, and that lens has only deepened their feelings for them. “There was one moment [when they were shooting a scene] where they topped another performer when I had a burst of pride,” they recall. “I thought, ‘wow, that’s hot,’ because they were manifesting so much power in that scene.”
Sinc also feels like seeing the creativity that his wife brings to her career is really attractive. He says, “Watching her be creative and watching how much art she puts into things… she is passionate, and I am passionate, and I am happy to be a part of it.”
James expresses a similar sentiment. He says, “Sex work is something that makes someone I love excited. I can’t see a lot of good reasons to not be excited about it. I love watching her creatively express herself and her eyes light up when she figures out a new angle to her hustle.”
Nick, in addition to finding the stories and experiences his partner brings home interesting, feels grateful to be with someone who is brave enough to live her life the way she wants to. He says, “I’m impressed by my partner going into sex work, having that level of independence and non-conformity.”
There is some selection bias at work here given that it was only those people who successfully navigated relationships with sex workers–and continue to do so–that opted to be interviewed. But it is precisely these people who are best positioned to give folks who are new to having a relationship with a sex worker advice.
For Sinc, communication is key. He simply states, “Be patient, be communicative, and listen.” John echoes this sentiment, saying, “Be constantly honest with how you feel and communicate it as best you can.”
While Pan agrees that communication is key, they also believe that it isn’t the job of the sex worker to baby their partner. As such, they try to work through as many of their feelings on their own before bringing them up. They say, “You have to take each moment as it comes, and when it does you need to sit with things and do some pondering before laying it on the other person.” This requires being in touch with your own feelings. They continue, “If you are apprehensive, perhaps listen to that, or at the very least do some exploring.”
In addition to good communication and self-knowledge and care, Nick suggests that new partners shouldn’t put too much weight on how they feel at the beginning when everything is still new. He recalls, “The things I found were strange have disappeared to me.” And moreover, “You come to realize it’s a normal job just like any other.”
Pan agrees, closing out our interview by saying, “I kind of return to the phrase, ‘The whole thing is remarkable in its unremarkableness.’”